Thursday, September 6, 2018

Random Encounters and Space Hulk's Blips

Blindsight got me thinking about Space Hulk, which got me thinking about the blips.  Space Hulk has a mechanic where the alien player conceals his forces and moves them as "blips" on the human player's radar until they come into line of sight of a human unit.  It's a nice way to handle information asymmetry and partially hidden movement.  I think something like it might solve one of the issues with random encounters as they are played.

The way a random encounter in the dungeon goes in D&D (certainly in my games, at least) is usually something like this:
  • Party is doing stuff
  • DM rolls d6, 6 for random encounter
  • DM generates wandering monsters
  • Surprise roll
  • Reaction roll
  • Initiative roll
  • Combat 
  • Return to exploration loop
What's missing here is tension.  The encounter happens, it is resolved, it probably doesn't really link to anything else in the dungeon because it was just generated.  Resource costs are applied and then life goes on; there is no qualitative change unless the random encounter was on the way out while the party was already resource-exhausted.  It's almost like Bad Trap Syndrome, but with a combat intead.

The other thing missing here is that a rule has been ignored - the random encounter distance rule, another roll between generation and surprise.  Nominally should be 2d6 * 10 feet in the dungeon, in ACKS at least.  That's a long way (in expectation).  That's outside torch radius on average (30' of bright light, 20 more feet of shadowy illumination).  It's also outside of average monster infravision radius (60').  If you, like me, tend to not have 70' hallways, generally that's going to be around multiple corners or through multiple doors.  This is not typically a "the monsters come around the corner or through the doorway, roll for surprise" situation.

The reason this rule is ignored is straightforward - tracking runtime-generated state outside of PC line of sight is a hassle.  If you're using a graphpaper map, there isn't a good way to track groups of monsters moving through the dungeon.  Digital tools could probably handle this better.

But if you're willing to pay the price to track these 'blips' outside of PC detection range, the atmospheric and gameplay benefits are, I suspect, significant.  They turn random encounters from "fire and forget" into lingering threat, things just outside your vision, eyes reflecting your torchlight.  Waiting in the dark for you to make a mistake, stalking you, looking for an opportunity to pounce (or maybe just to eat your dead).  A heavily-armored party might not even be able to close with and engage such groups due to speed differences.  I suspect these lingering random encounters might encourage the use of thieves in the shadowed zone (where they can quickly pin down or drive off such enemies; pickets) and other "lightweight" play.  Multiple random encounters might lead to multiple groups of uncommitted creatures - morlocks ahead, morlocks behind, nowhere to run.  Depending on the monsters and the ecology of the dungeon, multiple "open" random encounters might fight among themselves (presenting an opportunity to players) or join forces.  Players might detect them with listening or detect evil...  blips on the paladin-scanner.

These things in the dark become a source of tension, a source of potential energy for the dungeon.  The other shoe, ready to drop.

On reflection, this difference in use is reflected in the old naming - "wandering monster" instead of "random encounter".

Thursday, August 30, 2018

Blindsight

Been almost a year since I read any recent (written, say, post-1400) fiction.  Lucked into a recommendations thread of "modern metahorror" though, and I've been... enjoying? it so far.  Lovecraftian themes (man is a blind and tiny thing, unable to perceive/process the true nature of the universe and the things in it), but reframed for a secular age.  Man vs nature in the limit, not man vs man or man vs evil.  The Antimemetics Division was a good opener (the first story arc anyway - second was OK, definitely skip the third).  Now on to Watt's Blindsight.  Excellent job conveying protagonist's disorientation to the reader via fractured structure and unfriendliness in naming / reference (and maybe weird variations in font size?).  The reader is left to guess a lot and it works for the theme of the piece.

But that's not what compelled me to post.  This is:

Light from below.

*

You'd think that would have made it easier. Our kind has always feared the dark; for millions of years we huddled in caves and burrows while unseen things snuffled and growled—or just waited, silent and undetectable—in the night beyond. You'd think that any light, no matter how meager, might strip away some of the shadows, leave fewer holes for the mind to fill with worst imaginings.
You'd think.
We followed the grunt [combat drone] down into a dim soupy glow like blood-curdled milk. At first it seemed as though the atmosphere itself was alight, a luminous fog that obscured anything more than ten meters distant. An illusion, as it turned out; the tunnel we emerged into was about three meters wide and lit by rows of raised glowing dashes—the size and approximate shape of dismembered human fingers—wound in a loose triple helix around the walls. We'd recorded similar ridges at the first site, although the breaks had not been so pronounced and the ridges had been anything but luminous.
"Stronger in the near-infrared," Bates reported, flashing the spectrum to our HUDs. The air would have been transparent to pit vipers. It was transparent to sonar: the lead grunt sprayed the fog with click trains and discovered that the tunnel widened into some kind of chamber seventeen meters further along. Squinting in that direction I could just make out subterranean outlines through the mist. I could just make out jawed things, pulling back out of sight.
"Let's go," Bates said.
We plugged in the grunts, left one guarding the way out. Each of us took another as a guardian angel on point. The machines spoke to our HUDs via laser link; they spoke to each other along stiffened lengths of shielded fiberop that unspooled from the hub trailing in our wake. It was the best available compromise in an environment without any optima. Our tethered bodyguards would keep us all in touch during lone excursions around corners or down dead ends.
Yeah. Lone excursions. Forced to either split the group or cover less ground, we were to split the group. We were speed-cartographers panning for gold.
Now that's how you open an old-school, high-bodycount future-dungeon-crawl on a Big Dumb Object.  Man.

I really should've used fog in my dungeons.  Good way to limit vision after the party has magical solutions to darkness, provides a use for gust of wind during exploration.

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

The Long Haul, Microsandboxes, and Three-Shots

Against the Wicked City had a good post on the passage of time in D&D, which ticked a number of my boxes, including Pendragon, expeditions with a basecamp, and change over long periods of time (I suppose RuneQuest has this model by default too).  It has me thinking of a maybe-sane structure for running wilderness in semi-ACKS.

Cut the long-running campaign into seasons.  The players travel to a microsandbox (6x6 hexes maybe?) at the beginning of a season.  The microsandbox has a basecamp, garrison, fishing village, or other small, limited market.  The players adventure in the microsandbox for three or four sessions (hence the three-shot), probably some combination of exploring to find dungeons and then working on those dungeons.  At the end of that "adventuring season", the microsandbox closes for the rest of the year (monsoons, harsh winter, harsh summer in desert, annual wildfires, ghoul season, whatever), and the PCs return to civilization proper, where they can restock from an effectively-unlimited market, work on long-term projects, &c.  This also gives the campaign a natural point for re-evaluation, player feedback, and correcting issues (in the design of the region (too big?  too small?  not enough loot?  not enough dungeons?  couldn't find dungeons?), party composition, players with 14 AC, discontent due to boredom or expectation mismatch...).  Players decide if they want to return to that region again next adventuring season (maybe slightly expanded), or to a new one.  DM restocks region (with six to nine months of game time, a lot can change) or builds a new one.

Has some nice properties.  Incremental development approach for the DM with limited initial investment (provides nice opportunity to iterate on mapping techniques), explicit player-feedback cycle, ability to change theme / setting dramatically without straining the structure, makes use of market limits in the place where they make sense without making them a constant pain, provides a natural place to slot in replacement domain-type systems (the "resting in civilization" phase), might ease logistics in play compared to long-distance wilderness adventures (in a 6x6 sandbox, nothing is more than six hexes away from anything else...).

Some other interesting angles and possibilities:

  • Transport costs to and from regions, at a higher level of abstraction than the ones in ACKS' campaign chapter.  "5kgp to charter a ship to the Isle of Dread, able to carry up to 10 characters plus gear (characters with Seafaring ride free), 1d3 sea random encounters in transit, returning to pick you up at the end of the season".  Safer regions are probably closer and less expensive to travel to and from, lower risk.  Also a reasonable in-game-world way to impose party-size limits (or at least create costs - you could hire another ship to bring another 10 characters if you wanted).
  • Exotic trade goods as treasure: might work better under this structure.  You capture (or gather) stuff in the microsandbox, and bring it back to civilization with you at the end of the season, where you can sell it at a mark-up for being "from distant lands".  Maybe abstract away the whole "rolling for sale price" too, because you have six months sitting in civilization and can presumably get a fair one.
    • This also provides a nice lump sum of income+XP at the end of the season that might mechanically make it a likely place to level, which makes sense structurally / narratively in terms of "home, time to train and reflect on experiences".
  • Domains - possibly worth splitting into two sets of mechanics.  Domains back in civilization (fiefs?) probably operate more like Pendragon's; low/no growth, passive income with a roll once per season.  Clearing and conquering wilderness out in the microsandboxes would work more like ACKS' defaults, if people cared to do it.
    • On the other hand, passive income is dangerous in ACKS, because it provides XP and therefore can lead to level divergence instead of convergence.  Honestly this might be reason enough to ditch XP for domain / campaign activities entirely.
  • Organizational interests - one idea I liked from Pathfinder Society is the secret societies, each of which provides extra objectives during adventures.  Given a set of organizations back in civilization, each probably has some set of interests in the microsandbox (some of which may be mutually exclusive), which PC members might accomplish.  If you're headed to the desert, the mage's guild will pay high prices for the Spice, there's a branch of the assassin's guild that has gone rogue and needs cleaned up, the thieves' guild boss has a map to the Cave of Jeweled Eggs but wants a cut of any that you bring back, the imperial legion wants an up-to-date map of the oases in the region for logistical planning, and the church would like to recover the Nose of Saint Omar, which is lost but believed to be held by infidels.  So those seed the region with adventure hooks if the PCs are members, and not all of them are probably going to be completed within the season (after which they refresh / evolve, as the situation in the region changes).  Completion gives rewards, which might include eg status, civilized fiefs, end-of-season cash and XP, magic items, monopoly on particular goods, troops, ... ?  And there is some gameable choice and allocation of limited resources, given partial information both about the objectives and the rewards for completion.
    • For a more civilization-politics focused game, would certainly be possible to do with individuals too; the Duke of Wheresuch has an interest in these things, the Earl of Therewith in these others...  But something I have found is that generally modern players are more comfortable with bureaucratic organizations than personal feudalism.
  • Limited access to new / weird races and classes - the market in the microsandbox is small, but what henchmen there are may be of races and classes not available back in civilization (or in other microsandboxes).  Also true of friendly / recruitable NPCs.

Sunday, July 22, 2018

Morrowind, Starcraft, Drafts

Been a while.  Currently procrastinating on writing binary patching tools for a big hacking competition coming up.  Gaming-relevant things I've been up to in the last...  oh dear, quarter I guess:

  • Replayed Morrowind using OpenMW and the GoG version of Morrowind's data files.  OpenMW is a straight upgrade on the original engine and worked beautifully.  Looking at it now, the game suffers some pacing issues and the wilderness gameplay is pretty boring (hey, like my campaigns!), but by and large I still think it compared favorably to Skyrim outside of polish / graphics.  The learning curve is steeper, but there's actually complexity there to master.  I had fun.
  • Got Starcraft 2 working in Wine, played through most of Wings of Liberty and the whole of the Heart of the Swarm campaign.
    • Wings of Liberty was OK.  There was sufficient freedom in choosing the order of missions that the plot (such as it was) got kinda incoherent in the middle of the campaign.  I'm a little sad their portrayal of the strategic part of guerrilla warfare / revolt wasn't better, but this is forgivable because ultimately the campaign layer is a wrapper around a series of games of the RTS mode.  In comparison to the SC1 campaigns, it felt like there was less use of heroic units, and less...  emotionally-impactful events (worlds falling and being destroyed, betrayals and deaths of notable NPCs, things like that).  Many of the missions felt pretty gamey / had silly gimmicks.
    • Heart of the Swarm was disappointing.  I did like that they reduced the freedom of mission choice, which allowed sort of coherent subplots to be carried out in close proximity / sequence.  It was, however, shorter than WoL, some of the same gimmicks were repeated, Kerrigan was way over-powered, and at the end of the day it just didn't feel very...  zerg.  Also I dislike the supernatural direction of things, with this prophecy and resurrected xelnaga business - psionics is always annoying to me in science fiction, excusable in small doses, but this is just turning into fantasy.  I have no intention to play the Protoss campaign.
      • Did get me thinking about zerg / tyranids / bugs for Dirtside, though - worms for deep-striking, winged locust infantry, burrowed hidden units in attack/defense scenarios, there're just a lot of interesting thing they could do that mix things up.  Then again, given how well my last conversion attempt of bugs to a Ground Zero game went...  meh.  On the upside, morale is much less important in Dirtside, so that might simplify things a little.
  • Woke up absurdly well-rested this morning, "as if I'd stolen sleep from whatever supernatural entity is responsible for its allocation."  Which would be an amusing adventure idea; characters cursed with nightmares, lucid-dreaming funhouse dungeon to kill or steal something to break the curse, and if you die you wake up (exhausted) and can try again the next night.  Reminds me of the 3.0 Manual of the Planes' dream-planes.
  • Apparently one of our summer interns plays 5e.
  • Re-read Dune.  Meh.  For a book so thematically concerned with ecology, they sure do neglect to explain what the worms are eating to grow to 200 meters / how they sustain the sort of energy expenditures observed.  It's a cool visual, but ultimately sort of dumb - swimming through sand is a lot harder than swimming through water.  Did find it somewhat interesting that most chapters (at least early) were structured around a single conversation between two characters.  Also interesting as an index for how much stuff I've forgotten over the last ten years (measured answer: most of it).
    • I suppose one interesting, gameable note from Dune was that both of the mentioned mentats (Piter and Thufir) were also their respective lord's master of assassins.  Interesting ties to Strategic Thief?
  • Titles of draft posts from the last couple of months that I haven't actually finished or published:

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Wilderness Lords and Symbolic Hexclearing

I'm not on the Autarch fora much anymore, but I dropped by recently and something interesting came up.

Quoth Tywyll:
As to the Domain game, I'm using the assumption of another system which is that at level 9+ you don't build your own castle but reclaim one from an evil or chaotic lord.
To which I replied:
I like this idea a lot; what system is it from, if you don't mind my asking?  I could even see replacing clearing hexes with overthrowing a natural / monstrous "wilderness lord" (think Oberon, Arawn, &c) to reclaim a realm for man and Law. 
Apparently it is from Blood and Treasure, which I have not read, but which looks like sort of an interesting 3.x / OSR hybrid, with a lot of material backported from the 3.x SRD.

I want to elaborate on this a little.  Problems with traditional ACKS hex-clearing include that it is undramatic, with lots of time spent on boring crap fights with crap treasure against dumb beasts, and that it requires a lot of book-keeping.  We can reduce these problems by giving Wilderness a face, a name, a voice, a sentience.  The wilderness lord and his cronies are the biggest, baddest things in this particular patch of wilderness, strong and smart enough to keep everything else in check, supernatural and aloof from the conventions of man.  To depose or conquer them is to symbolically "tame" the wilderness that they rule, to bring it under the Law.  The remainder of the monsters in their territory are liable to recognize when the party is over and either emigrate or offer tribute in exchange for permission to remain, while human peasants acknowledge the new ruler and begin immigrating.

We might even construct a parallel hierarchy, of savage dukes and wild kings...

The real point of this post was to kick around some ideas for these things.  Going to see a lot of overlap with the "men and monsters" part of the dungeon random encounter table.

  • Elves / fey, possibly with leveled spellswords but those are complicated
  • Dragon is another easy one
  • Ents of Fangorn
  • The Ur-Wolf rules the Great Pack of the steppe
    • Crow, Coyote, the Lion of Narnia, the Tiger Burning Bright, and other sentient, conversant animal-spirits generally
    • Ysengrin
    • The Frog God
  • Leviathan, Dragon Turtle, or Kraken
  • I don't know what exactly the Mountain King is, but...  that.  The biggest, baddest, 12HD morlock you ever did see, maybe.
  • Steading of the Hill Giant Chieftain?  Sounds like a stronghold to me...
  • The Mushroom Brains of the Grim Fist
  • Vampire, lich, and death knight are classics
  • Continuing that gothic theme, werewolf/lycanthrope could certainly work
    • Demon Boar would make a fine wilderness lord with an orc/pig army
  • Wendigo
  • The Green Man / Green Knight / Maro
  • The simplest case, really, is the human outlaw - Robin Hood, the Khan, druids, Radagast the Brown (yeah yeah he was Maiar, can it), whatever, as long as they let the wilderness do its thing and remain inimical to settled, agrarian, civilized life.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

What's the Point?

This is, ultimately, the question I've been wrestling with for the last year or so.  Why play D&D?  Especially OSR/TSR D&D, with encumbrance, logistics, prime requisites, and PC death.

This is an attempt at an answer.  It's only about half-coherent, and I can't tell whether it's obvious or just obviously wrong.  I don't love it, and I don't expect you to, but I figured I'd get a rough draft out.  I guess my new bar for 2018 is a post a month; maintenance doses.

D&D is an artifice for character-building for the participants (traditionally, poorly-socialized young men).  Success in OSR D&D requires a number of properties which are useful in real life, which may be worth taking the time and energy to develop (and to encourage one's acquaintances to develop) in low-risk environments.

What are the lessons that various antiquated features of OSR D&D are aimed at teaching?

  • Stats in order - Play the hand you're dealt.  As Hamming said, "I will do the best I can with what I got."  
  • Prime reqs - In terms of class selection, you can fight your rolled "nature", but you'll get a lot further faster if you play to your high stats.  Different classes demand different virtues of their players; thieves need risk-tolerance and faith in the rest of the party to come rescue them, wizards need patience, caution, and careful spell-timing, fighters need courage, persistence, and willingness to sacrifice themselves, and clerics need humility, the ability to accept that sometimes you're not the star of the show.  Prime reqs push you towards classes that you don't usually play, and situations that test virtues you might not be so good at.
  • Mixed-level parties, characters with very different stat distributions - Life isn't fair.  If you're on the weak end, resenting the strong won't get you very far; work with them for mutual gain.  If you're on the strong end, treat those weaker than you well, because you might have a reversal of fortune at any time and end up back at the bottom of the heap.
  • Monoclassing, minimal build - You are not special by default; you are Joe Fighter by default.  If you want to be somebody that people will tell stories about years later, it's on you to do something notable.
  • Mapping, encumbrance, rations, Vancian magic - Come prepared, plan ahead, pay attention to the details.  Neglecting them can get you killed.
  • PC death - Memento mori.  Some day, you will die.  Yes you, dear reader.  You can run from it, or you can accept it, figure out what you want, and go get it or die trying.  It's important, I think, that unlike eg Call of Cthulhu or Paranoia, death is not short-term inevitable in OSR D&D.  You need players to get attached to their characters, and that doesn't happen when death is too frequent.
  • TPK / Near-TPK situations - How panic-prone are you?  If other players are panicking, do you keep your head, or do you catch the panic?  Can you calm others?  Watching panic spread through a group of players is really remarkable.  When you get crushed, do you ragequit, or reflect calmly on your mistakes and return for vengeance?  The reason PCs don't make morale rolls is that their players are dealing with their own, very real, morale.
  • Levels / fully-quantitative and exponentially-scaling advancement - If you want to get ahead, you have to be willing to take some risks.  After the first couple levels, it doesn't just happen anymore with any sort of regularity.  You need to say "I want to level", to choose it.  And then you need to put in the work, take the risks, and probably get a little lucky.  And that's true of life too.  I'm hitting this point with my career, where I've done well but the organization I'm at is just small.  I find myself with a choice between slow, pretty-safe advancement over the course of years, or choosing to prioritize advancement and doing the work to make that happen, either somewhere else or via personal projects in my free time.  Since I'm here writing blog posts, you can guess how well that's going.
  • Tiers of play (dungeon / wilderness / domain) - Advancement has side effects, most of which involve new challenges, more responsibility, more patience, and more paperwork.  This is what happens to conventionally-successful people.  You can't have your cake and eat it too; you can stay in the dungeon forever, but you're not going to get over 6th level if you do.
  • Old-School Wish - Be careful what you wish for.  Someone was once very surprised when I mentioned that I gave out wishes in my games; she said "But wishes destroy campaigns!"  And I laughed.  No, wishes are temptation.
  • Rulings, not rules - Negotiate for things that you want.  Don't appeal to authority; convince me.  Whine, bullshit, do math, resort to bribery, whatever, these are valid approaches and you should learn them all.
In conclusion: I really do think OSR D&D presents its players with challenges which are well-suited to the development of mindset / personality traits which are adaptive, and rewards them for performing those virtues, not merely playing someone with those virtues.  Other games foster different virtues; 3.x rewards you for reading rulebooks, finding loopholes, and doing math, which are very useful skills.  Traveller...  rewards you for automating the trade system, which is something, I guess.

What place does Fun have in this conception of D&D?  I agree with Tao that Fun Is Not The Point.  Fun is, however, a necessity.  If your game is not fun, your players will leave before learning the lessons the game could teach them.  So strive to make your games Fun Enough (probably Type 2 Fun); there's a balance.  Unfortunately there may be a race to the bottom with fun; games which are more-fun tend to outcompete games with are less-fun in the marketplace for players.  These games which are more-fun also tend to lack the features which promote controlled but real adversity, and consequently growth.  I do not know how to resolve this problem yet.

What place does Narrative have in this conception of D&D?  Likewise, narrative is a device.  Humans like it, and therefore you can exploit their preference for it to make your game more appealing, and consequently more effective at cultivating virtue.  I have been wrong about narrative.  There might even be some aspirational "play the sort of person you'd like to be" upside to dealing with characters and stories, but that's not something I would know anything about.  Classes are a very Jungian structure to begin with...

What place does Simulation have in this conception of D&D?  If you seek to prepare your players for Real Life, making your game reasonably realistic (at least to the level of "actions have consequences, which you can predict by analogy with real life, except when noted by the rulebook") is sensible.  Simulated details provide a hook for Attention to Detail, and can also factor into Convince Me.  I have probably over-invested in simulation in the past (but it was fun for me, so not a total waste I guess).

What place does Game have in this conception of D&D?  The game element, of luck and challenge and risk and reward, is pretty central.  But I suspect one of the lessons to be learned from OSR D&D is that yes, you can play the game well, and you can win it, but it's sort of hollow and the reward of power is tempered with paperwork, as opposed to setting out to do your own thing and winning on your own terms, like Rary.

What is the role of the DM in this conception of D&D?  Courtney hit the nail on the head with "shaman leading the group's collective vision-quest."  You are here to help them become what they could be; to point out their flaws, to put them under eustress, and to reward them when they grow.  And in this light, the ritual character of the D&D game which I found so disturbing seems perfectly natural.

I apologize, DMs, for adding "spiritual guidance" to your prep burdens (using a loose, materialist definition of "spiritual", as in "of or related to the human spirit; ie, morale, emotion, and character").  I certainly do not consider myself qualified in that department.

All this still doesn't answer the essential question of "is it worth it?"  If you're spending 12 hours a week on prep+game for four people, you're looking at effectively three hours each of time investment per week, for a very ill-defined return.  Could you do better by just...  unstructured socializing with these people for the same amount of time, and talking about their problems?  I think maybe no - the game and the ritual provide a context where failure and self-examination are tolerable, where we can get at hard truths precisely because we're all lying.

The ultimate measure of the game, from this perspective, might be "do people outgrow your games, and go on to live happy lives?"  I spoke with one of my old players recently, and he mentioned that he has come to see RPGs / storygames as a form of "group therapy."  I don't know that I'd go that far (those are very soft words), but I think it's reasonably consistent with my meaning.



Addendum:

I don't mean to say that TSR D&D was intentionally designed as a training program.  I think training is a welcome, desirable side effect which can justify the activity.  Norbert Wiener, in The Human Use of Human Beings (one of the seminal texts of cybernetics), discusses the function of play, and argues that generally, play is training in vertebrate species, who come into the world with much more plasticity than eg invertebrates; you will never see an ant play.  We humans play as well, and for the same reasons: training and pack-bonding, in preparation for the difficulties of life.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Scarcity, Traveller, and Starcraft

Several things happened recently which reminded me of Traveller.

My father flies cargo around the Pacific, and it came up in conversation with him that much of what he carries is hazardous or generally "does not play well with other cargoes".  Oxidizers, corrosives, fertilizer, livestock...  and when you put these on a big container ship, there are more things for them to interact violently with if something goes wrong.  So instead they travel alone in a cargo plane.  Seems to me that this provides a potential out for one of the core problems of Traveller economics - why is anyone hiring this tramp freighter to move their goods when there are enormous shipping lines who have economies of scale?  Because there are some things that are more hassle than they're worth to the big players.  This is already supported, technically, but it's a shift from "hazardous cargoes exist" to "hazardous cargoes are the default."  This also adds an extra layer of potential excitement to cargo operations, especially since cargo is on the table of "things that can be hit in space combat."

I also tested for a ham radio license, and all the finicky details of talking to satellites got me thinking about how we abstracted away communications (between, say, ship and ground) completely.  Even outside of dealing with doppler shift and the ship only being in line of sight a fraction of the time, ground-to-ground communication might be complicated by alien atmospheres (in this case, it looks like Mars' ionosphere is sufficiently lower and thinner than Earth's that practical range for single-bounce ground-to-ground RF comms is about 600 miles instead of 2500+ miles you can get on Earth).  This seems like the sort of thing the old Traveller nerds, with their planet-to-planet time tables based off of acceleration, would've enjoyed thinking about.

Finally, I read this post of Charles Stross'.  His bit about economics got me thinking about post-scarcity, and I came to the conclusion that I'm extremely critical of the notion.  Hanson articulates a reasonable critique here.  So I was reminded of Niven and Traveller's belters (grungy, working-class subsistence futures) and also generally that populations expand to fill their carrying capacities - biological replicators.

Between radios, future-scarcity, jobs, and replicators, I got to thinking about Starcraft, in its grungy, space-Australia-western-full-of-ugly-assholes-but-oh-god-what-are-these-bugs-aiiieeee flavor that I enjoyed at the beginning of the first campaign (it is, of course, hardly great science fiction, but so be it).  I realized that I had never actually caught up on the plot of Starcraft II, so I set about fixing that.  In so doing, I found this little gem (just the next ~30s after the linked time).  A hell of a Traveller campaign that would make: a posse of destitute space hicks - miners, drone operators, mechanics, welders, hydroponic farmers, meth cooks...  probably two or three terms, one or two military or criminal and one civilian - living dirtside and working day jobs to afford ammunition, stimulants, and explosives to go zerg hunting in the desert on the weekends, and selling the body parts for mad science...  or barbeque ("Infestation?  Naw son, you just gotta cook it real good.").  It's just another bug hunt until you wake up something you shouldn't've...  and then the fun really starts ("Worlds will burn.").

This also starts to get into some more typical OSR territory; it could turn into a rather dungeon-crawly (tunnels), resource-managementy (cash and consumables), and probably high-body-count way to play (might want to find a way to accelerate character generation...).  Taken from that perspective, starship deckplans start to look rather dungeonesque too, after you have some transport, vacc suits, and a reputation as crazy bastards who will go into infested holes for fun and money (enjoy your zero-G melee...).  Maybe Stars Without Number would do it better, since it supports mechanical advancement and building capital ships as a PC activity.

NPC palette:

  • Patrons:
    • Scientist wants samples (or to radio-tag some live specimens, or to test some attractant / repellent, or...)
    • Tourist on zerg-hunting safari seeks guides
    • Company-town mine foreman needs a mine cleared of bugs, willing to look the other way if you use weapons normally forbidden by town charter as long as you don't do too much collateral damage
    • Crashlanded bush pilot or starship crew in infested zone needs rescued (practically traditional at this point)
    • Crime boss needs something retrieved from infested zone or something transported through it, can hook you up with good (illegal) gear
    • Prospectors / colonists seek protection and guides while looking for site to mine or settle
    • Separatists looking for a few good men to help liberate the armory of the local military base
  • Rivals:
    • Other posses of zerg-hunting rurals
    • Confederate marshal concerned about heavily-armed civilians
    • Confederate troops using hunting area as a training ground
  • Enemies:
    • The bugs
    • Old buddy that you left behind back in your criminal days